The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unlawful and unreasonable search and seizure. Yet that protection is being slowly eroded away. Thanks to the “War of Drugs” and the “War on Terror” government, at the state and federal level, has worked alongside the courts to gradually diminish the range and force of the protections that were meant to be inviolable rights of all citizens.
This year has seen two serious blows to the constitutionally-protected freedoms of the Fourth Amendment. The first was a ruling by the US Supreme Court in February that makes it easier for police to enter and search private homes without warrants. Previous interpretations by the court had held that in cases of disagreement between residents on whether to admit police to search a residence without a warrant, one resident’s permission was sufficient to prevent the search. Under the new ruling, one resident is sufficient to admit police, even over the protest of another resident.
This ruling inherently dilutes the right of individuals to their own private domicile and to be protected from police searching their property without their permission. This outrageous decision will no doubt further damage the guarantees and protections promised by the Constitution.
The second assault on protections against search and seizure happened in Pennsylvania this month. Pennsylvania has for many years been more resistant than other states to the destruction of Fourth Amendment rights. The constitution of the commonwealth has traditionally been interpreted as going even further than the Fourth Amendment, extending protections to property such as motor vehicles. In fact, police officers had to call a judge in order to obtain permission to search a car.
That protection has now been overturned by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Now police can search cars on their own initiative, as they can in most states. The commonwealth was one of the last hold-outs on this issue. Without it, the norm of searching citizens’ vehicles at police discretion is unchallenged in statutes of the state and federal governments.
These attacks at the federal and state levels on a core constitutional right have angered people across the political spectrum. Even the usually left-leaning Huffington Post has reported angrily on the rulings.
The US Supreme Court ruling in particular is demonstrative of the problems that can arise when the political leadership of both parties holds a convergent view of policy that does not align with the desires of the broader polity. In a duopolistic political system, the political agenda can be almost impossible to challenge when such convergences occur. If the major political agents agree to act in a way that is contrary to that of the people, the system often denies any redress.
The only way to challenge the system, as it stands now, would be to mount primary challenges. The Republican Party is being convulsed by such a process now, but the Democrats remain largely unperturbed. Citizens who value their rights cannot permit the political actors who represent them to ossify policies directly antithetical to their express will. It remains to be seen whether Americans can successfully band together to protect their rights from government encroachment. On this issue, with sufficient anger from both left and right, there is reason to hope.